George Meredith Analysis

Other literary forms

George Meredith wrote more than one dozen novels, including The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), The Egoist: A Comedy in Narrative (1879), and Diana of the Crossways (1885). His novels attack egoism, or excessive self-importance, and sentimentality, or unfounded pride in fine sensibility. The characters and situations presented in Meredith’s novels are fictions, but they are often drawn, sometimes closely, from real people and actual incidents. Meredith’s novels have been praised for their descriptions of society and their characterizations, especially of women, and criticized for their excessive elaboration of incident and background and for their highly artificial style, which many readers find both tedious and distracting. Meredith, whose novels explore a vein of comedy marked by rueful self-recognition, articulated his ideas on comedy in On the Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (1877).


For much of George Meredith’s career, his audience was small but select. Reviews of his work were mixed, yet he received praise from writers as varied as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson. With the publication of Diana of the Crossways in 1885, Meredith’s popular reception blossomed. His last years were full of honor. In 1892, on the death of Tennyson, he was elected president of the Society of Authors. Ten years later, he was made vice president of the London Library. He was honored several times in his last years by leading figures of the literary world. In 1905, Meredith received the Order of Merit.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111207099-Meredith.jpg George Meredith. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ironically, George Meredith, one of nineteenth century England’s greatest novelists, actually considered himself a poet. Regrettably, the several volumes of poetry he published during his lifetime went largely unnoticed. Even thoughAlfred, Lord Tennyson, praised “Love in the Valley,” published in his first volume, Poems (1851), dedicated to his then father-in-law, Thomas Love Peacock, it was as a novelist that Meredith achieved recognition in his own time. Undaunted, nevertheless, Meredith continued to write poems and, in keeping with his stated vocation and with his aspiration, both his first and his last published books were collections of poems.

Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside (1862) represents Meredith’s lyric and dramatic power at its height, especially in the sequence of fifty sixteen-line lyrics, Modern Love. In these poems, Meredith traces the dissolution of a marriage with an unrestrained candor that is more like the attitudes toward marital relationships of the late twentieth century than the straight-faced, closed-lipped Victorian notions. At the lowest point in the sequence, the persona exclaims, “In tragic life, God wot,/ No villain need be! Passions spin the plot;/ We are betrayed by what is false within.” Herein Meredith seems to capture with great precision the essence of tragedy. Meredith’s poetic vision is not always dark; light imagery, in fact, plays a significant role in his poetry.

The thinking man appears often in Meredith’s works, but he is perhaps most prominent in the 1877 work On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit. This essay is significant enough to be included in many contemporary collections of criticism, especially in those that pertain to drama. Acknowledging that the muse of comedy has never been “one of the most honored of the Muses,” Meredith submits that it is the “Comic Spirit” that civilizes humans. By means of thoughtful laughter, the Comic Spirit corrects and checks the foibles of all those who exceed the bounds of temperance and indulge by excessive behavior. Although Meredith opened himself to censure in his own day, his ideas about women and their roles in comedy are particularly interesting to today’s readers. Indeed, comedy, “the fountain of common sense,” teaches that men and women are social equals and that women are often men’s superiors.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the late nineteenth century, George Meredith achieved the status of a literary dictator or arbiter of taste. The path toward this recognition was, however, a long and arduous one. For years, Meredith received little to no recognition, and he had to wait for the publication of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel before he enjoyed the limited appreciation of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and others among the Pre-Raphaelites. Not until the appearance of The Egoist in 1879 did Meredith’s literary reputation reach its zenith.

During his last years, Meredith received many awards and honors, including the succession of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as the president of the Society of British Authors and election as one of the original members of the Order of Merit. Within twenty years after Meredith’s death in 1909, nevertheless, his literary reputation began to suffer a partial eclipse, from which it began to recover in the 1970’s. One explanation for Meredith’s decline in reputation is simple: His turgid style and complex plots demand more from the average reader than he or she is often willing to give.

C. L. Cline’s three-volume edition of The Letters of George Meredith, which appeared in 1970, and Phyllis B. Bartlett’s two-volume collection of The Poems of George Meredith (1978) have done much to reawaken interest in Meredith’s work, particularly in his poetry, which seems to appeal to modern readers much more markedly than it had to those of his own time. Even so, the influence of Meredith the novelist on such younger writers as Thomas Hardy was decisive, and Meredith’s theory of the Comic Spirit as the civilizing force of all thoughtful persons speaks to all cultures of all times.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Beer, Gillian. Meredith: A Change of Masks. London: Athlone Press, 1970. Attempts one of the first modern appraisals of Meredith’s art, seeing him as a novelist anticipating twentieth century concerns and techniques, as well as questioning Victorian certitudes. Includes an index.

Heimstra, Anne. “Reconstructing Milton’s Satan: Meredith’s ’Lucifer in Starlight.’” Victorian Poetry 30 (Summer, 1992): 122-133. Explores at length Meredith’s debt in this poem to John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and goes on to analyze the implications of Meredith’s wording and imagery.

Houston, Natalie M. “Affecting Authenticity: ’Sonnets from the Portuguese’ and ’Modern Love.’” Studies in the Literary Imagination 35, no. 2 (Fall, 2002): 99-122. Examines Victorian poetic theory, with emphasis on the role of authenticity, in an analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Meredith’s Modern Love.

Kozicki, Henry. “The ’Unholy Battle’ with the Other in George Meredith’s ’Modern Love.’” Papers on Language and Literature 23 (Spring, 1987): 140-160. Contains a summary of the criticism dealing with conflict in “Modern Love.” Kozicki then discusses the poem in detail. His references to the suppressed version of Sonnet 10 are especially interesting.

Muendel, Renate. George Meredith. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapters on Meredith’s poetry, his early fiction, his novels of the 1870’s and 1880’s, and his last novels. A beginning chapter provides a brief biography. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Roberts, Neil. Meredith and the Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A good study of Meredith’s long fiction. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Williams, Ioan, ed. Meredith: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971. A collection of reviews and essays showing the critical reception of Meredith’s work from 1851 through 1911. Contains indexes of his work, periodicals, and newspapers.